Alone Again, Pataki: Circled by Liberals, Governor Faces 2002

History will remember Election Day 2000 for its uncertain result. But in New York, the results were anything but mixed. Never mind Al Gore’s big victory here; that was expected. The loud and clear message came in the U.S. Senate race. Hillary Rodham Clinton, one of the most polarizing figures in American politics, won a Senate seat by a double-digit margin over a homegrown Republican whose cheerleader in chief was the very man who had restored New York Republicans to power after a 20-year absence–Governor George Pataki.

Mrs. Clinton’s easy 12-point victory was the latest in a string of Republican setbacks in the last three years. And all of a sudden, Mr. Pataki is a very lonely man. Six years ago, on election night 1994, he took the stage in the New York Hilton as the man who toppled Mario Cuomo, the national symbol of Democratic liberalism. Mr. Pataki not only became the first Republican since Nelson Rockefeller (in 1970) to win a gubernatorial election in New York, but he had enough juice to elect running mate Dennis Vacco, who became state Attorney General. And the party’s guiding spirit, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, celebrated the Republican take-over of Congress, ensuring that he would become chairman of the influential Senate Banking Committee. In 1994, George Pataki was master of his domain.

Six years later, George Pataki is all alone, the Republican Party’s only statewide elected official. (Lieutenant Governor Mary Donohue also is a Republican, but she was elected as part of the Pataki ticket.) “Oh, my God,” said one Pataki aide. “Surrounded by liberals at every turn! How much worse could it get?” How much worse? Well, how does “Senator Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party powerhouse” sound? Mrs. Clinton’s presence in New York “puts a bulls-eye on the Governor’s head,” in the anxiety-stricken words of one Pataki aide. Mrs. Clinton is expected to bring along some of her old friends from the war-room days, and they surely would delight in bringing down Mr. Pataki in two years. In fact, a Pataki defeat would seem to be Priority No. 1 for a revived state Democratic Party, for Hillary Clinton’s state Democratic Party.

George Pataki, once the symbol of a resurgent New York Republican Party, has, in the space of six years, become the party’s last high-profile redoubt. Since 1998, Mr. D’Amato has been replaced by Charles Schumer, Mr. Vacco by Eliot Spitzer. There’s a Democrat as county executive in Westchester. Republicans have lost control of the Nassau County legislature for the first time in memory. And now Hillary Rodham Clinton and friends have come to town.

Not a pleasant prospect.

Mr. Pataki “says he’s not worried” about Mrs. Clinton’s presence in the state, according to one adviser who recently spoke with the Governor. “That means, of course, that he is worried. Hillary is going to be in town every day, Bill [Clinton] is going to be around. And she did a great job in the campaign.”

State Democrats believe Mrs. Clinton’s victory shows that the Governor is in for a tough battle should he run for a third term in 2002. “Pataki is Lazio-like,” asserted one adviser to State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, an all-but-announced Democratic candidate for Governor in 2002. “They’re both moderate Republicans. And the fact that Hillary Clinton won by so much sends a message to George about what Carl can do.” Mr. McCall, the first and thus far only African-American to win statewide office in New York, campaigned ferociously with Mrs. Clinton in the last weeks of the campaign, and the African-American turnout in some precincts doubled that in the 1996 Presidential race, according to one top state Democrat. That bodes well for a McCall challenge to Mr. Pataki.

In addition, Mrs. Clinton’s strong upstate showing indicated that the region that gave Mr. Pataki an overwhelming edge in his 1994 campaign against Mr. Cuomo is not an automatic win for the Republicans. Mr. Pataki won upstate by a two-to-one margin in 1994; Mr. Lazio split it almost 50-50 with Mrs. Clinton.

And then there is the money question. Mr. Pataki raised and spent $20 million to win a re-election campaign that was both easy (he trounced Democrat Peter Vallone in a three-way race) and troubling (he barely received 51 percent of the vote). His fund-raising scared off stronger opponents, but that won’t be the case anymore with the vaunted Clinton fund-raising machine now based in Mr. Pataki’s home state.

“The New York Democratic Party now has access to tremendous amounts of cash, and that always hurts [Republicans],” said George Arzt, a consultant and lobbyist.

Still, there are some auguries in Mr. Pataki’s favor. Many of his pet issues–the upstate economy, expanding the state’s child-health-insurance program to families whose incomes put them above the poverty line, the environment–are also Mrs. Clinton’s issues. Mrs. Clinton has promised to deliver on those issues in Washington, and if she does, she may, ironically enough, help Mr. Pataki.

“Mr. Pataki is still the Governor,” said Democratic consultant David Axelrod, who is Mr. McCall’s consultant. “He has his hands on the levers of power, so it’s not as if he’s out in the cold.” Kieran Mahoney, who helped run Mr. Pataki’s two gubernatorial campaigns, agreed. “The way the world works is that the Governor is the Governor and everybody else is everybody else,” Mr. Mahoney said. “[Mr. Pataki] is immensely strong. His numbers are better now than they’ve ever been because he’s been the Governor for six years, and New York State is in better shape than it’s been in my lifetime. Ultimately, good governance is good politics.”

Caution: Rebuilding Ahead

The Governor’s failure to deliver New York to Mr. Bush, or even come close, apparently won’t be held against him by the national Republicans. “No big-shot governor carried his state,” said Republican political consultant Roger Stone. “Not [Pennsylvania governor Tom] Ridge, not [Wisconsin governor] Tommy Thompson, not [Michigan governor John] Engler. Hell, even Jeb Bush might not have carried his state for George W. The problem was Rick Lazio. It wasn’t Rudy Giuliani; it wasn’t George Pataki.”

But Mr. Pataki now faces a new assignment: that of rebuilding a political party barely six years after leading a previous reconstruction effort. The first order of business will be deciding whether state Republican chairman William Powers remains at the helm. Mr. Pataki is said to be eager to replace Mr. Powers, an early supporter of Rudolph Giuliani’s Senate candidacy despite Mr. Pataki’s barely disguised preference for an A.B.G. (anybody but Giuliani) candidate.

Not surprisingly, then, the recriminations over Mr. Lazio’s defeat have been extremely bitter. Even before the polls closed on Nov. 7, Libby Pataki, the Governor’s wife, was blaming Mayor Giuliani for being “selfish” and “jerking people around” by staying in the race as long as he did. It’s hard to imagine, said one family friend, that Mrs. Pataki wasn’t reflecting the Governor’s sentiment as well as her own. And there’s little doubt that the hard edge in her comment came from a sense that Mr. Giuliani’s soap opera had not only hurt the party, but led directly to the election of a Senator who will now aim a political cannonball at her husband.

Mr. Lazio’s campaign was the first high-profile campaign not run by G.O.P. stalwarts Mr. Mahoney and Arthur Finkelstein in a decade or so. In their place, Mr. Lazio chose an out-of-towner, Mike Murphy, who had run Senator John McCain’s Presidential primary campaign. Mr. Murphy and his candidate made a point of taunting Mr. Pataki and other top state Republicans, all of whom had lined up behind George W. Bush. Weeks after the McCain candidacy collapsed, Mr. Lazio brought Mr. Murphy in to work with the very Republicans he had alienated during the primary season. By Election Day, Mr. Murphy was persona non grata even in the Lazio campaign–he wasn’t in the state when Mr. Lazio conceded. The next day, however, Mr. Murphy lashed out at Mr. Powers and the state Republican Party for ordering up a phone-bank campaign that sought to link Mrs. Clinton to Mideast terrorism.

Mr. Mahoney, who had refused to say anything bad about Mr. Murphy throughout the entire campaign–even under piercing questioning from The Observer –finally offered a glimpse of the tension that is gripping the state Republican Party in the aftermath of this latest disaster. “Mike Murphy trashing the New York G.O.P. for making those phone calls is a crock,” he said. “When you lose by 12 points, it wasn’t because of phone calls made late in the campaign.”

Mr. Murphy is unlikely to get a chance to clear his name in New York anytime soon. Not so Mr. Mahoney. In 2002, Mr. Mahoney will be at Governor Pataki’s side, guiding him through what may be his toughest campaign yet.